Drowsy City (Thành Phố Ngủ Gật) (2019)

Drowsy City (Thành Phố Ngủ Gật) first published by EyeforFilm at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival 2019

When a film starts with an aerial looking down on a busy metropolis, it often serves as economic cinematographic shorthand for one of those now-hackneyed voiceovers promising that what we are about to witness will be just one of a million stories to be told in the big city (i.e. a representative tile in an implied broader social mosaic). It can also serve as a god’s eye view, suggesting a religious or cosmic frame for the mundane events to follow. Drowsy City (Thành Phố Ngủ Gật) has it both ways. For this second feature from writer/director Dung Luong Dinh (Father and Son, 2017) is both a portrait of marginalised lives in urban Vietnam, and a ‘Taoist’ fable laying out action and retribution as a chicken-and-egg cycle.

The protagonist (Nguyễn Quốc Toàn) – who we eventually discover is actually named Tao – is very familiar with the lives and deaths of chickens. In his apartment he keeps a brooding hen, and he earns his living slaughtering and feathering chickens (not always in that order) for ritual purposes. If you are squeamish about depictions of animal suffering, be warned that such sequences abound in Drowsy City, which never shies away from the grim mechanics of butchery. These scenes, though, serve as an important counterpoint, even a complement, to the way that humans are shown treating other humans, which seems no better.

Tao leads a spare existence in a dwelling whose few furnishings, apart form a feathered mannequin, are purely utilitarian (witness the multiple uses to which he puts a simple plastic vat which serves him both at work and at home). This spartan life of quiet solitude is disrupted when three criminal thugs (Vũ Minh Trí, Tạ Xuân Tuế, Trần Văn Ba Trường) decide to squat in the abandoned factory downstairs, soon bringing in a prostitute (Lê Thúy Hiền) whom they treat as their virtual prisoner and slave. Tao too cannot escape his new neighbours’ escalating threats and brutality, as they beat and burn him, and humiliatingly force him to impersonate one of his chickens. We know this worm will eventually turn, although few will predict the very particular form Tao’s vengeance will take as he restores peace to a drowsy, often lonely city where everyone is walled in close together.

With its near mute protagonist, its animal cruelty, and its heady admixture of the worldly and the theological, Drowsy City owes a clear debt to the works, perhaps even to the worldview, of Korean director Kim Ki-duk  (The Isle, Spring Summer Autumn Winter… and Spring) – but it is also very much a film of its place, offering oneiric and mythic perspectives on modern Vietnam at street level, and from above.

© Anton Bitel